Thursday, October 31, 2013

Your Halloween Cocktail -- the Ghost Manhattan!


Here at the American Cocktail Laboratory, we are always experimenting, always researching, always working to discover or if need be invent the right cocktail for the occasion.

Tonight is Halloween.  So what better time to imbibe in spirits?  The question answers itself.

To celebrate Samhain, Marianne has created a pale and perfect concoction -- the Ghost Manhattan.  Beautiful, innit?  And it tastes as good as it looks.

Here's the recipe.

Ghost Manhattan

2 parts white whiskey (in this case, Jim Beam's "Jacob's Ghost," appropriately enough)

1 part dry vermouth

2 dashes lemon bitters

Shake vigorously over ice, pour, and add an orange twist.


Above:  The noble drink atop our wood stove.  It brings to mind the immortal line from Bunnicula Turns 21 -- "It was a white Manhattan!"


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A City and Its MIrror


My contributor's copies of The Cascadia Subduction Zone arrived yesterday.  This is a feminist genre literary quarterly and normally I wouldn't dream of writing for such a journal because I am very suspicious of men who proclaim themselves feminists.  I mean . . . they do tend to be loud and overbearing guys, don't they?  Though I'm sure there must be exceptions.

But Nisi Shawl is the reviews editor and she hit me up for an article on the poet and novelist Hope Mirrlees.  And because Nisi is a good friend, it was hard for me to say no.  So, in addition to a long article and very good article by Mark Rich on C. M. Kornbluth as gender-egalitarian, six detailed book reviews, a poem by Gwynne Garfinkle, and artwork by Luisah Teish, there is my own "Two Eleusinian Mysteries - Lud-in-the-Mist and Paris: A Poem by Hope Mirrlees."

Years ago, I wrote a slim book-length study of Mirrlees titled Hope-in-the-Mist: the Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees.  Anyone who's read that will be familiar with most of what I wrote in this article.  But I did have a good observation about Paris: A Poem that came long after its publication, which is included here:

Let’s go back to that first line, however, “I want a holophrase.”  A holophrase is a single word that expresses a whole phrase or combination of ideas.  Right at the outset – but I wager no first-time reader ever picked up on this – Mirrlees forthrightly declared her intention: to fill that want.  The rest of the poem is the process of creating a holophrase by a seemingly random but actually cunningly constructed ramble through the streets and museums of Paris, encountering its layers of history, the “grand guignol” of Catholic ritual, the fresh social wounds of the Great War, the politics of the time, high and low culture, the taxicabs, the smells, the whores, the ghosts . . . and many, many things more.
It is so very typical of Mirrlees that this  "want" -- both lack and desire -- that the poem sets out to fulfill and which has gone unnoticed for most of a century is declared forthrightly in the very first line of the poem.  Which is not titled Paris and then subtitled  A Poem but is properly titled Paris: A Poem.  Because what Mirrlees was saying is that Paris is a poem.  To establish which, she created a holophrase incorporating all of the city, so that it became figuratively A Poem: Paris.

I just thought you might like to know that.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Singing, "Oh no, William and Mary Won't Do"


I went back to my old school this past weekend, my first homecoming in 41 years.  And a strange experience it was for me.  I wandered through the campus and environs like a ghost, picking out spots where this and that had happened:

The patch of ivy in front of the Colonial Williamsburg offices, where Ann and I lay kissing until somebody came out to chase us away because we were depressing the office drones.

The music building where Crazy Tom got busted coming out of his cello lesson.

The Wren Building, where Richard Nixon slipped in the back door to avoid the protestors out front for a televised meeting with young Republican students shipped in from other colleges, then sneaked out a side door to avoid seeing the protestors then at both front and back of the building.

The President's House, where I went caroling with a group of friends, in the futile hope of getting a glimpse of the president of W&M, whom none of us had seen since freshman orientation.

Bryan Hall, where we were cursed at by the dorm's occupants.

The foot of the Sunken Gardens, where the Group Mind, fueled by a great deal of LSD, went to look at the alligators.

The life sciences building, where we used to ride on top of the elevator.

The very spot (close by the statue of Thomas Jefferson) where, shortly after graduation, I took the last thirty-seven cents I had in the world and threw it as hard and far away from me as I could, because it was the only worthwhile thing that could be done with thirty-seven cents.

The Earl Gregg Swem Library where I worked for two years, and whose stacks I haunted in order to learn all that the rest of the college could not teach me.  And which contains not a single one of my books.

The brick walkway where, to her lasting astonishment,  I picked up Sally, spun her around in the air, kissed her, and set her down again.

The patch of grass where, during an antiwar vigil, in an uncharacteristically private act of conscience, I burned my draft card.

Old Dominion Dormitory, which once seceded from the student union.  I came home one night to find it surrounded by very angry policemen because Turtle -- who barely evaded capture and arrest -- had painted FUCK THE PIGS in very large block letters across the roof.

Crim Dell, an inexplicably beautiful pond crossed by a wooden Japanese bridge, right in the middle of the campus, where I would go whenever I was heartbroken and needed peace.

Phi Beta Kappa Hall, where I worked as a stagehand for the production of Cabaret starring Glennie Wade -- now rather better known as Glen Close.

By the end of the day, I was feeling . . . not alienated, exactly, but isolated.  Distanced from the happy boisterous homecomers whose college experience had apparently been so much more what it was advertised to be than was mine.  But then, in the evening, I went off to the Clarion Hotel, where something like twenty-five of my old friends, most of whom had participated in none of the homecoming events, were gathered.  We reminisced about old times, remembered the dead, reconnected, and, ultimately, parted.

And I felt much, much better.

Above:  Old Dominion Dormitory, universally known as O. D.  Dorm.  Not that anybody OD'd there, to my knowledge.  Though a young woman of my acquaintance, in an act of vengeance upon the male sex, one evening did pass from room to room, giving everybody on my hall a case of the crabs.  Luckily, I out of town that day.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

I Just Wanted To Say . . .

Lou Reed is dead.

Don't forget to dance on his grave.  He'd do the same for you.


Friday, October 25, 2013

The Season Of The Witch Is Upon Us


Every year at this time, I stroll two blocks up Ridge Avenue to Gorgas Park.  There, I get out the two rubber stamps I had made, one reading AUTUMN and the other DEATH, and stamp the fallen leaves with them.

Such is but one of the many duties incumbent upon a fantasist.  I hope that yours are as pleasant as mine.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again, off for a weekend of strange adventures.  If any of them seem suitable, I'll share them on Monday.

Immediately above:  Memento Mori.  Remember to die.  Because if you've never died, you haven't yet led a rich, full life.  Both photographs by Marianne Porter.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What To Do With Your Failed Stories


I've just spent a day looking through a small fraction of the stalled, interrupted, and incomplete stories in my files, trying to decide what I want to put my hand to next.  And it put me in mind of a couple of questions that new writers rarely think to ask:

What should I do with all the failed stories I've accumulated over the years of trying to learn to write?  Should I throw them out or what?  

And the answer is:  Keep 'em. 

Yes, you'll probably write twenty new stories for every one that you resurrect from the mouldering heaps of paper that infest your writing space.  But there are two reasons to keep your failed fiction.

The first is that there's something in each story that spoke to you strongly enough for you to make the attempt.  You didn't have the chops to bring that thing out at the time.  But as you grow stronger and craftier as a writer, what isn't clear to you now will become obvious to your older self.  Those endless leaves of prose will form a thick, rich compost from which new flowers can grow.

The second is that I knew a writer who cleared away all his old paper . . . and then stopped writing for several years.  The writer's subconscious is always looking for excuses to not write.  Don't make it easy for the little bastard.

That's all.  Except to say that with electronic storage as cheap as it is now, there's no reason for your desk to look as cluttered as mine.  I've heard tell there's a thing called the "paperless office."  You should look into it.

It's probably too late for me.

Above:  Yes, that's my desk.  Imagine what the rest of the room looks like.


Monday, October 21, 2013

The Easy Way To Win A Major Science Fiction Award


I may have told you this before, but what the heck.  It bears repeating.

I know you guys want to win major awards.  Well, there's an easy way to do so.  And it involves only two steps:

1.  Become a good enough writer to deserve the award.

There's no getting around this one.  Occasionally a clunker lucks its way into a Hugo or a Nebula, but that's actually pretty rare.  Anyway, you want to be recognized for being a good writer, right?  Not for being a mediocre writer with astonishing luck.

2.  Write a really good novella.

First, a few definitions.  A novel is a work of fiction over 40,000 words in length.  A novella is 17,500 to 40,000 words long, a novelette is 7,500 to 17,500 words, and a short story is under 7,500 words.  There are no major awards for flash fiction.  Though surely that's coming.

Got that?  Okay.  Now, the reason you want to write a novellalla is that there's less competition there than in any other category.  The single most competitive category is Novel, simply because there are so many of them published every year.  The second most competitive category is Novelette, because the form gives writers the freedom to develop an idea at some length combined with a plenitude of market slots available for the story.  So many very good writers have a particular fondness for that length.  It takes more skill to write a really splendid story in the Short Story category, so that's less competitive.  But there's still a lot of good writers working in that form.

Novellas, on the other hand, are relatively rare.  The major magazines have only so many slots per year for them, so most writers avoid the form.  That means that an extraordinary novella will get noticed.  It has a better chance of getting on the Hugo or Nebula ballot.  And it has a better chance of winning.

It's as simple as that.

You're welcome.  Don't forget to thank me at the awards ceremony.

Above:  Some of my awards.  The cardboard one isn't a real Hugo.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Free Story Idea Friday


Sorting through some old papers yesterday, I came across some old correspondence in which a friend asked me why I never sent her any stories.  So, on the spot, I made one up for her.  Which she didn't use, of course, because she wasn't the sort of writer who can work from other people's ideas.   De scribblibus non est disputandum and all that.

But it's not a bad idea, and since I don't plan on using it myself, I thought I'd throw it out there for whoever wants it.  Take it and run! 

The story is called . . .


The protagonist of "Hobbits" is a Homo floresiensis.   She, and others like her, belong to what I call a lazarus taxon -- a resurrected species like the aurochs in our time or the mastodon in the near future of the story.  (Incidentally, I don't know if there's an official scientific term for resurrected species.  You'll have to do the research to find out.)   

Her name is, of course, Rosie.

Rosie is young and still sorting through the problems of being dumped into a racist (and sizist, and speciesist, and taxonist, etc.) world, feeling tremendous resentment toward the human race for having created her.  She doesn't want a hobbit boyfriend (even if they didn't all want tall girls) because they'd look cute together.  She doesn't want a sapiens boyfriend because he'd make her look and feel small.  The question that she's ultimately grappling with is whether the hobbits are part of "us," part of the greater society, or a totally different species living in implicit enmity with the human race.

These issues are chiefly played out in her relationship with her mother.  Conflicted feelings there.  When she was young, her mother doted on her, so her early memories are good.  Now she thinks she was dorked over royally just so Mom could have something cute to play with.  It doesn't help that, as she's gotten more surly and anti-social her mother is finding her a lot less engaging than she used to be.

Lots and lots of issues there.  But chiefly mother-daughter stuff, which is one of the great themes of our age, I think.

It needs a third party to kick the whole thing into fiction.  A lawyer who wants her to join in a class-action lawsuit?  A crackpot notion to create a separatist island homeland for hobbits?  A gay hobbit friend who's thinking of taking an offer to make fetish porn?  I'd recommend incorporating all three, with the first and last in the foreground and the middle just something they talk about scornfully.
Oh, and Rosie should have a sapiens female friend, mostly sympathetic, who at a key emotional moment lets her know that you don't have to be a hobbit to have problems with your mother.

That's all.  You're going to have to do some research into the science of genetic manipulation, of course.  But there's no reason why you can't start writing the story right now.

Have fun.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Time Travel for Fun & Profit


This just arrived in yesterday's mail:  The Time Traveller's Almanac, edited by the Vandermeers and containing my story, "Triceratops Summer."

"Triceratops Summer" is an interesting story because while almost everyone who reads it think it's one of the sweetest, most positive things I've written (myself included), my son, Sean Swanwick, believes it's the bleakest, most nihilistic thing he's ever read. And he's read both "The Dead" (my version, I mean, not Joyce's) and "Radiant Doors."

De gustibus non disputandum, I guess.

The collection itself is what we call a bug-crusher, weighing in at over a kilo and a half and containing enough fiction to satisfy your appetite for time travel for a long time to come.  It made me wonder, in fact, if these enormous summary volumes of various sub-genres of SF aren't a sign of the end-times of science fiction.  An implicit statement, I mean, that yet another segment of it is done and complete and can be placed on the bookshelf next to the collected Shakespeare and the single-volume works of the Lake Poets.

But these dark moments pass, like the shadows of clouds on a summer meadow.  Whatever the truth may be, I shall continue to write as if both the genre and I were immortal and the long centuries stretched out before us, verdant and serene, waiting for me to fill them with words.


Monday, October 14, 2013

This Glitterati Life: Capclave 2013


I had a fantastic weekend at Capclave, hanging out with my friends.  Below are a scattering of things that were said then.  I apologize for how many of them are my own quips and comments, but I didn't think to take notes.

And then I heard . . .

I ran into George R. R. Martin and mentioned that I got a kick every time his fame broke into a new category.  "I never in my life dreamed there would be bobbleheads," he replied.

To my surprise, George hadn't yet heard that there were two porn parodies of Game of Thrones in production.  When I told him that, he said, "Maybe I should try out for a role."

George's wife Parris, a long-time friend, recommended A Feast of Ice and Fire, the companion cookbook to the series, saying, "It's not just a good book, the recipes are delicious."

Michael Dirda and I chatted for a while on the virtues of James Meeks' terrific novel The People's Act of Love, which I read on his recommendation.  I told him that when when I was in Ekaterinburg and said that at Englishman had written a great novel about the Russian Revolution, they denied the possibility and wouldn't even allow me to tell them its name or the the name of the author.

Anatoly Belilovsky and I chatted about Pavel Amnuel's story,  "White Curtain," which Anatoly translated into English and which Gordon Van Gelder is going to publish in F&SF.  "Amnuel is at the top of the second rank of Russian science fiction authors, just below Yefremov and the Strugatskys," he told me.  "But this is going to be his first English-language publication."

I ran into Charles E. Gannon, who showed me his latest book, Fire With Fire.  "The second book in the series will have a very different cover," he said.  "I like it, but worry that readers will want a series with a uniform look."  To which I replied, "Remember Heinlein's covers back in the Sixties?"

There was a panel on writers who used primitive technology, where Howard Waldrop, who was the poster boy because he doesn't use email, absolutely destroyed the basic premise of the panel.  He was asked how he managed to find carbon paper and replied, "I used to buy it at yard sales.  But now I just use a copier."

David Hartwell told me that the second and final volume of William H. Patterson's biography of Robert A. Heinlein will be out next year.  "I never realized it before reading this," he said, "but Heinlein was a bit of a con man."

I spoke with Ian Strock about his Fantastic Books print-on-demand company which is publishing an interesting mix of old and new books.  He looked genuinely happy over how well it was doing.  "I'm able to sell works in the public domain for two dollars less than than books where I have to pay the author," he said.

"It's traditional for you to buy a magazine from me," Darrell Schweitzer pointed out, so of course I did.  I am a slave to tradition.  But I can't seem to remember how this specific one ever began.

My own personal best moment came when, on one panel, cartoonist Steve Stiles said, "I hate fucking unicorns." To which I replied, "Then STOP DOING IT!"

On the George and Howard and Gardner panel, Gardner Dozois reminisced about the infamous Barbara Marx Hubbard Nebula banquet speech:  "Evolution was bunk, she said.  We were were all beamed down from outer space, whole and perfect.  At which point, Michael Swanwick leaned over to me and said, 'Then why do I have an appendix?'"

At the same panel, Gardner described the presentation Howard had once done at a Worldcon of all the science fiction movies ever made, the peak moment of which was when he had everybody don 3-D glasses and then threw wadded-up sheets of paper into the audience, shouting "Meteor storm!"  For years after, convention planners begged him to do it again, but he never did and swears he never will.  "Howard is as stubborn as a mule," George said.

However, at my final panel, I took a snapshot (above) of Howard summarizing the plot of The Invisible Man.  So never say never again.


Friday, October 11, 2013

My Capclave Schedule


As ever, I'm on the road again.  This time to Capclave, Washington D.C.'s finest science fiction convention.  Which is in Gaithersburg, but never mind that.

Here's my schedule:


4:00 pm: The Worlds of Clifford Simak (Ends at: 4:55 pm)

Panelists: Jamie Todd Rubin (M), Darrell Schweitzer, Alex Shvartsman, Michael Swanwick
50 years ago Simak won a Hugo for Way Station. He also wrote City and the Hugo and Nebula winning "Grotto of the Dancing Deer." Yet today, few younger fans have read his work which is available only in the small press and "public domain" compilations. What happened? What makes his stories so timeless? What do you think is his best work and how can it be revived for today's audiences?

7:30 pm: Mass Signing 

10:00 pm: Name Drop and Quote Panel. (Ends at: 10:55 pm)

Panelists: Scott Edelman, Andrew Fox (M), Steve Stiles, Ian Randal Strock, Michael Swanwick
Nothing but bragging rights here as the panelists drop names and share quotes as they discuss the best experiences, novels, stories, and conventions they have ever seen. Or not.


9:00 am: Agents and You (Ends at: 9:55 am)

Panelists: Tom Doyle, Emmie Mears, Lawrence M. Schoen (M), Michael Swanwick
Agents are very important to authors. Sometimes you have a great match from the beginning, other times the situation changes. Hear the experiences of authors at different stages in their careers.

2:00 pm: Low Tech Writers (Ends at: 2:55 pm)

Panelists: Dina Leacock, Jamie Todd Rubin (M), Michael Swanwick, Howard Waldrop
Harlan Ellison uses a typewriter, a manual typewriter. Asimov refused to fly. And our special guest Howard Waldrop doesn't use email. Why might some writers about the future refuse to use technology? How does this influence their fiction? What would happen to society if more people followed their example and opted out?

And speaking of this literary life . . .

I drove out to Bala Cynwyd today to have lunch with master fantasist Gregory Frost.  We covered a lot of territory but the single coolest project we worked on was the early scheming-out of a collaborative fantasy story.

It's going to be a great story, too.  I could tell by how gleeful we both were as we kicked around ideas for the plot, lines of dialogue, and the like.  Oh, we were flying!

And that's all I'm going to tell you.  The story is going to be too good to give any of it away here.  But stay tuned.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Eleven Words of Wisdom from Tom Purdom


I'm home from the fabulous SFWA Mill-n-Swill in New York City.  Picture two large rooms with three free bars, thronged with publishing professionals, and you can imagine the clamor.  Loudest damn get-together of the year.

But a productive one.  My traveling companion, Tom Purdom, and I had dinner with editors Sheila Williams and Neil Clarke, and up-and-coming editorial professional Emily Hockaday.  I talked over my new novel with my agent, Martha Millard.  I learned a lot of useful information.  And I picked up a fair amount of gossip.

None of which I'll share with you today.  Instead, I want to pass along eleven words of wisdom from Tom Purdom.  I like traveling with Tom because he's a serious conversationalist, a witty man, and someone whose memory goes back further than mine.  I enjoy talking with him and he's always worth listening to.

We were talking about the mania new writers have for self-publishing e-books and how unprepared most of them are for the enterprise.  Yes, there have been successes.  But those I've talked to all emphasized how much hard, pragmatic work they put into it.  If you aren't already famous and you want to self-publish, you really should have a business plan, I said, and it shouldn't be based on wishful thinking.  Word of mouth is all very well and good.  But it didn't kick in for Moby-Dick until long after Herman Melville was dead.

But Tom cut right to the core of the matter.  "There's a big difference," he said, "between publishing something and making it available."

There it is, in a nub.  If all you want is for your work to be available, it's never been easier.  But if you want thousands of people to read it . . . well, you've got to be published.  By professionals.  They might be the staff of a major publishing house, who are prepared to offer you money in advance, send out ARCs to reviewers, and distribute your fiction to bookstores.  Or they might consist solely of yourself.  Both routes are possibilities.

But in either case, you want people who know what they're doing.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Michael Swanwick, Trencherman


And now for something completely different . . . a link to somebody else's blog!

Lawrence M. Schoen has a series on his blog titled Eating Authors.  As he explained it to me:

Given that the protagonist of much of my fiction styles himself a gourmand, a couple years ago I started a feature on my blog where I ask other authors to share recollections of their most memorable meal. 

Lawrence is a genial guy and I like him, so I said yes.  And I told him about the time that I -- moderate and abstemious man though I am -- was a Trencherman for a Night.

Click here to read the entire story.

And as always . . . 

I'm on the road again.  Today it's a flying visit to New York City for the SFWA Annual Reception for Industry Professionals, an ungainly name for a pleasant event that's pretty much universally referred to as the Mill-n-Swill.  (I don't know who came up with that nickname, but I'm pretty sure it was an editor; and I think I can guess which publishing house; and I know which one I'd bet twenty bucks it was.)

I'll be back Wednesday, possibly with tales of lust and fury among the glitterati.  But probably not.  It's been decades since Thomas Disch got drunk at a SFWA event and took a swing at . . .  Oh, wait, the other guy is still around.  I'm afraid you'll have to wait to hear that story.

Above:  I've said it many times before, but it bears repeating.  Lee Moyer is a brilliant and witty artist.  Any time one of my publishers wants to commission him to do another cover for me, they'll have my full support.


Friday, October 4, 2013



Okay, it's Friday and my computer is barely speaking to the tubes and chutes of the Interweb, so I'm posting a video trailer for K3LOID, a short film by Big Lazy Robot about a robot uprising.  It looks to be great fun.

The robot uprising seems to be the default meme for robots.  The very first appearance of robots (well, actually artificial humans, which would make them androids; but this is where the word was invented; and anyway that fight has been long lost)  in R. U. R. by Karel Capek featured a robot rebellion, and almost a century later we're still playing out the same fantasy.

Robots were a mainstay of science fiction from their initial speculative invention, continued strong through the1970s and then dwindled to almost nothing in the 1980s as various pundits articulated the many irrefutable reasons why there would never be humanoid robots.  Followed in the 1990s by a swarm of Japanese patents for humanoid-ish robots that could do the many things it had just been established they never would.

You don't see a lot of written science fiction about robots nowadays  (film robots are a different story), I suspect mostly because so many of them already exist.  But I think they're going to make a comeback.  All that's needed is one major story with an original and compelling vision of what robots might become.

New writers should take note.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Imagination is a Horse . . .


In response to Monday's post about "Radiant Doors," perhaps my bleakest story (unless it's "The Dead"... how do you quantify such things?), Mark Pontin posted the following request:

... But perhaps at some point you'll take a break from Darger & Surplus and dragons -- however profitable and entertained the audience for such fiction might be -- and take the chance to write more stories like 'Radiant Doors'?

This is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask.  Alas, the answer is anything but straightforward.

It's true that I've been writing a lot of what Graham Greene called "entertainments" lately.  In addition to the works cited, there are also my Mongolian Wizard stories, the fourth of which will be appearing at soon.  These were inspired by Poul Anderson's Operation Werewolf and the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett. and there are three more stories in various stages of completion on my hard drive.  I imagine these would also be seen as a distraction. 

Why have I been writing entertainments?  I honestly don't know.  The imagination is a horse.  I've learned how to ride mine, but not how to tell it where to go.  All I can do is hang on and hope for the best.

This does not mean that I won't be writing any serious stories.  On the side of the bookshelf by my desk, I have post-it notes with the names of six novels and a dozen shorter works I hope to get to in the foreseeable future.  They do include a new Darger & Surplus story.  But also a major collaboration with Gardner Dozois, a long story about dissecting a giant intelligent alien worm, a story set on a cloud, a Christmas story, a fantasy I promised Marianne for Dragonstairs Press, a werewolf story...

Most of these stories are nothing like you'd imagine they would be.  They are all worth writing.  And some of them are very dark indeed.  But which will get written when?  And what new ideas will rise up from the primordial murk in the meantime?  Your guess is as good as mine.

I'm only riding the beast.  And so far as I can tell, he doesn't take requests.